Constable made hundreds of on-the-spot sketches throughout his career. Timothy Wilcox looks at the way drawing informed his life and art
Constable famously wrote that "painting is another word for feeling". He might equally have said, "drawing is another word for thinking", for it is through his drawings -- hundreds of them, mostly made in the pocket sketchbooks that he always carried with him - that he made sense of the world around him. Some familiar places, such as East Bergholt village, the river Stour between Flatford and Dedham, he drew dozens of times. If he could continue to be surprised by these scenes he knew so well, he was better equipped to put into his paintings his immediate visual delight underpinned by a deep sense of familiarity, of belonging, of ownership.
The skills that Constable honed at home in Suffolk went with him on his travels. Whether his drawing was of a castle or a cottage, these jottings were much more than a simple aide-memoire. He was always thinking pictorially, looking beyond the subject in front of him to its setting within the wider landscape, and making every new experience personal by relating it to his own preoccupations: the natural world revealed through the shape and structure of trees, or the transformative power of light and shade.
These sketches have a further dimension, as the drawings in Constable's sketchbooks were not made purely for his own gratification. In the summer of 1814 he wrote to his fiancée, Maria Bicknell: "I have filled as usual a little book of hasty memorandums of the places which I saw, which you will see." The drawings were made to be shared, to be talked over together, to form part of the bond between them; they were love letters in graphic form.
Constable's 'understanding' with Maria was made in 1809, and from that date there is an explosion of both drawings and paintings. The earliest of the drawings owned by American collector Jasper Moore, which are offered at Bonhams New Bond Street in July, dates from around this year. The circumstances of Constable's visit to Hedingham Castle in Essex are not recorded. While his treatment of the building itself is somewhat perfunctory, his rendition of the profusion of trees around it is anything but. Their simplified shapes are comparable to the little oil sketches Constable was making around the same time, but the variety and weight of the shading he employs evoke not just several different species, but their color as well.
Two of the other drawings are even more directly connected to Constable's marriage, since one was made during his honeymoon in the late autumn of 1816, and the other depicts the beach at Brighton, where Constable took his wife hoping for relief from the tuberculosis that would tragically end her life in 1828. The earlier drawing depicts the Tudor mansion of Shottesbrooke Park, in Berkshire, which Constable visited on 7 December 1816. "I never had a desire to see sights – and a gentleman's park is my aversion. It is not beauty because it is not nature," he later pronounced. His approach here rather confirms this opinion, as the great clump of trees consumes all his attention, pushing the house to the extreme edge.
Brighton Beach is likely to have been drawn in 1825, during the Constable family's first summer in the seaside resort. It is so far the only sketch on tinted paper to be found, but there were doubtless others. Constable had drawn and painted on the Dorset coast at Osmington in 1816, and must have decided that the darker paper would help him achieve a weight and a tonal depth in his depictions of Brighton. He hated the social mêlée of 'Piccadilly-on-sea', and here seems to find solace in what he later termed "the wildness and sentiment of melancholy always attendant on the ocean".
Constable wrote those words to accompany an engraving of Brighton beach published in 1830 as part of his portfolio, English Landscape Scenery. It was only when, at 53, he was elected to the Royal Academy that he felt he had the experience and status to expound his ideas about landscape painting in print. Looking back over his career, and his origins as a miller's son in a corner of Suffolk, he identified two figures as his early mentors: men of standing who had recognized the passion, as well as the talent, of the untutored youth, and given him encouragement. These men were Sir George Beaumont, later one of the founders of the National Gallery, and Dr John Fisher, the future Bishop of Salisbury. The two remaining drawings are both directly associated with the men who played a crucial part in setting Constable on his path as an artist, and provided vital assistance at key moments in his career.
Beaumont and Fisher were dissimilar in character, and their relationships with the young Constable developed in different ways. Beaumont was a painter as well as a collector. When Constable moved to London to study at the Royal Academy in 1799, Beaumont lent him his precious landscapes by Claude to copy. It was Fisher, however, who in the autumn of 1811 invited Constable to come as a guest to his out-of-town residence – the Bishop's Palace in Salisbury.
This was Constable's first experience of Salisbury, the city he would return to repeatedly over the next two decades. The cathedral was surrounded by mature trees, and part of the Close was used to graze cattle, so Constable had little difficulty in conjuring up a rural atmosphere. While the Gothic tracery is given a fine linear treatment, the trees are rendered as blocks of tone. The broad planes that mold the tree into three dimensions not only record the light's direction (from the right), but suggest its rather feeble aura. The one noticeable shadow, cast by the flying buttress, indicates the elevation of the sun, with the tilt of Constable's pencil shading falling at the same angle.
Beaumont inspired Constable's lifelong reverence for Claude. There was a gap in their relationship between 1810 and 1820, but once Constable had been elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1819, Beaumont's interest was renewed. Constable was invited to Coleorton in Leicestershire, the house Beaumont had commissioned from George Dance, completed in 1808. The two-week visit stretched on for six, from early October to late November. When Constable told his wife that Beaumont had suggested he stay till Christmas, Maria replied acidly, "It was complimentary in Sir George to ask you to remain, but he forgot at the time that you had a wife." To make up for his prolonged absence, Constable teased Maria with his exploits: "you would laugh to see my bed room, I have dragged so many things into it, books, portfolios, paints, canvases, pictures &c, and I have slept with one of the Claudes every night". The innuendo was intentional, as he continued the next day, "I do not wonder at you being jealous of Claude. If any thing could come between our love it is him."
As well as making copies, Constable drew and painted in the grounds, and on the excursions Beaumont arranged every afternoon. His drawing of the house shows it as it first appears from the drive. He noted the urn marking the end of the retaining wall at the edge of the terrace; from its hilltop position the house had panoramic views. To the left is the boundary of the Winter Garden, laid out by Wordsworth during one of many visits. Steps descend into an old quarry which the poet filled with evergreen trees. Half-concealed in a group of elms is a 13th century church. Constable skilfully notices these diverse features without drawing attention to any of them. The composition is a masterly tribute to his host; it emulates Beaumont's own modesty and taste, evoking his association with creative talents in architecture and poetry as well as painting. It is also a moving testament to all that is best in Constable's own drawings: a combination of acute observation, love of nature and a sense of the human presence, which gives the landscape, with all its disparate elements, its ultimate meaning.
Timothy Wilcox is the author of Constable and Salisbury: The Soul of Landscape.